Remember the “Miss Me Yet” billboards featuring George W. Bush that cropped up during Barack Obama’s first term? A signature accomplishment, if it can be so described, of Donald Trump’s presidency is that they are now in effect being erected in the pages of the New York Times.
The latest installment of the Bush rehabilitation tour now has the former president appearing in the media outlets that were once critical of him to lament the current state of the Republican Party: “nativist,” “protectionist,” and of course “isolationist.” While much of the strange new respect directed toward Bush concerns immigration, an issue on which many of his detractors have long admired him in contrast with other Republicans and the subject of his new book of portraits, a substantial part of his displeasure with the GOP stems from its abandonment of his foreign policy.
With America seemingly poised to finally withdraw from Afghanistan by this fall, it is a displeasure shared by most of the GOP national security establishment and many of the Republican officeholders who were most influential on foreign policy while Bush was in office waging war with Iraq. The New York Times recently permitted itself to wonder if they may get the band back together now that President Joe Biden appears to be intent on fulfilling Trump’s pledge to end the longest of our endless wars.
“Foreign policy, particularly withdrawing from Afghanistan, was one of the few areas where Republican elected officials were willing to publicly criticize Mr. Trump,” the Times reported. “Now that he has left office, foreign policy experts who condemned Mr. Trump throughout his administration, and endorsed Mr. Biden by the dozens, are hopeful that party consensus will revert to the traditional Republican values of free trade, more open immigration and a re-embrace of international alliances.”
Left unspoken is that many of them hope that the party consensus will revert back to preventive war, rapidly expanding commitments for mutual defense with countries with little military might or connection to the vital interests of the United States, and a lower threshold for the use of force than prevailed under Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush, much less older Republican intervention skeptics such as Robert Taft.
America’s newspaper of record also paid a tribute of sorts to another branch of the Republican foreign policy elite represented by the late Sen. Richard Lugar and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. These Republicans were far more interested in diplomacy and were not neoconservatives. But seldom did they meaningfully restrain the neocons in moments of real peril. Even Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who later became an impassioned Iraq war critic and secretary of defense under Obama, voted for the authorization of the use of military force in Iraq nonetheless.
Republican hawks covered their bases quite nicely during Trump’s tumultuous and unconventional term. Many of them, as the Times noted, became deeply entrenched in Never Trump circles — always neoconservative-dominated — to the point where by 2020 they were in Biden’s camp. Others worked inside the administration, with varying results. Former national security adviser John Bolton has become something of a pariah in MAGA, and to a lesser extent conventional Republican, circles. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley are plausible presidential candidates. Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster lies somewhere in between.
Indeed, Trump issued a statement attributed to longtime Republican pollster John McLaughlin tossing Bolton on the ash heap of history. “John Bolton’s failed warmonger views are completely out of touch with today’s Republican Party and the majority of Americans,” the statement, which sounds a good deal more like Trump’s voice than McLaughlin’s, reads. “President Trump’s successful America First policies kept us safe. This is a big reason why Republicans want him to run again.”
Under Trump, the view that the war in Afghanistan went on too long and the one in Iraq was never worth fighting in the first place took hold in the Republican mainstream. While some opportunists are sure to oppose the Afghan withdrawal simply because Biden now supports it, especially when something bad happens in that country after the last American troops leave, the loudest voices are lawmakers like Mitch McConnell and Linsdey Graham who were aghast at such a “precipitous” move even when Trump was still in the White House.
The more ambitious Republicans on Capitol Hill, those who are more in touch with the activist grassroots and entertain serious 2024 presidential ambitions, still support withdrawal or even say Biden should have stuck to Trump’s original May 1 deadline. This includes Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who are young by congressional standards.
Relatively few Republicans extend their vision of foreign policy restraint to Iran or China, where Trump himself was hawkish (though it is easy to envision the Qassem Soleimani strike he ordered leading to a wider conflict after Iranian retaliation under a more thoroughgoing interventionist). One prominent non-libertarian, populist Republican who did hold the antiwar line on Iran and Yemen even when Trump did not, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, is enmeshed in scandal.
On foreign policy, Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan has so far proven a worthy successor to former Rep. Justin Amash, who has since deserted the GOP for the Libertarian Party. But on Trump’s second impeachment, he aligned with hawks like Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. Meijer’s future is likely appealing to the remaining moderate Republicans, as would suit someone representing Gerald Ford’s old congressional district, not the MAGA wing of the party. Amash and fellow intervention skeptic Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina saw their Republican congressional careers ended in large part because of their opposition to Trump.
Pompeo and others are selling a hardline stance toward Iran as an integral part of the Trump foreign policy legacy. To that end, Pompeo appeared with members of the Republican Study Committee — which appears intent on reclaiming its status as the premier conservative subgroup in the House from the Freedom Caucus — to back legislation curtailing Biden’s ability to lift sanctions on Iran.
Ascendant Republicans could practice one of two strategies. They might adopt a posture of opposing everything Biden does, which could lead them in a more or less hawkish direction depending on the president’s foreign policy trajectory. Or they could ape Trump’s America First stance, perhaps with more consistency than the former president — or perhaps not. Libertarians remain the most consistent force for peace inside the GOP. And the late Sen. John McCain, now joined by Bush 43, are among the media’s favorite Republicans, as if the Iraq war never happened.